Wednesday, July 27, 2011


This is Part III of the topic, please read “The Evening the Bridge Fell” and “After the Bridge Fell,” discussing the 35W Bridge Collapse of August 1, 2007.

Most people are smart enough to run away from an emergency, but there are some of us who run toward it. Not to stupidly gawk or intrusively film it for YouTube but we are compelled to help. There are different types of Emergency or Disaster Responders. Professionals are paid (fire, law enforcement, ambulance) and volunteers are trained (Red Cross, Salvation Army, CERT, and other VOAD groups

A thousand or so people responded after the 35W bridge collapsed until the site was taken over by the Minnesota State Patrol for the reconstruction process. The most vulnerable rescuers are the spontaneous people who decide to help at the spur of the moment. Many are able to help immediately after the disaster occurs. However, sometimes they do the wrong thing, get in the way of the responders or get hurt themselves. Since they don’t have training or post-event support they are also more susceptible to PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). I always worry about the spontaneous helpers.

The Navy Divers were an impressive professional group. They were requested because the Mississippi River has a fast current, the water was not clear, and debris was dangerous (cement, cars, construction equipment, and steel rebar). They brought in talented divers, amazing crew of support people, and awesome equipment for the task of retrieving cars and occupants. A dive site was set up on the end of the lock & dam and an operations center was stationed in the Red Cross building. It was odd to have military people in the Red Cross office since it is a neutral organization. A family member of mine was stationed on an aircraft carrier during 2007 so I was sought out by Navy personnel because I understand the military perspective. They certainly like Monster Drink!

The donors were wonderful and kindness flowed in from around the world. Donors provided funds to procure needed supplies that are unique to each disaster. Individuals, groups, companies and foundations provided funds to assist responding organizations help the people affected by the disaster. What touched my heart was a family with two little kids (around the age of 7 and 5). The children wanted to donate their piggy bank money. It was very sweet. Their parents knew the value of getting the children involved in philanthropy at a young age. In-kind donations are nice but create a logistical challenge. The stuff has to be checked to make certain that the items are useable and exactly what is needed, sorted, stored and distributed appropriately. It’s much better to donate money unless specific items are requested.

Irritated by the elected and appointed officials whose visits impeded the work of responders. Every time an official visited the disaster site they would come to the Incident Command Center, Navy Divers Operation Center, and the Red Cross Emergency Operations Center. It was good that they went to the site but we had to stop our activities when they dropped by the operation centers. Operations Center is where the activities are coordinated. President George W. Bush came over and we were full stop for several hours because the Secret Service had so many layers of security. Safety of the visitor is necessary but it was at the expense of the victim’s families and survivors. Dignitaries need to be aware of the ripple effect of their visit. They should stay at the disaster site and not mess with the responders or operation centers.

Appalled by the behavior of some of the media. They were ruthlessly seeking stories from people in pain and shock. The national media were the worst behaved. There are many terrific journalists but the bad apples were rotten. I remain lividly angry with the numerous people who did not calculate the bridge’s structural integrity correctly or report concerns. In my opinion, they are all directly to blame for this avoidable tragedy. Their arrogance cost lives, severely injured people physically and emotionally, and cost the community a lot more than money. More than money is needed to heal the wounds. The new 35W bridge is beautiful and strong but at a horrific cost.

I was not prepared to experience PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) myself. As a trained volunteer responder, I was in a situation where I learned a lot of confidential information and it was stressful. I could talk about it with some of my fellow volunteers but no one else because the information was too sensitive. My cats, Momo and Zozo, comforted me at home but they aren’t much for conversation. After the disaster I dealt with PTSD intensely for almost two years and slowly the symptoms reduced. I did have a flair-up watching a Harry Potter film which opened with a footbridge being attacked and people falling into the Thames River. I knew it was all computer graphics but I had a panic attack. I nearly left the movie. Thankfully, I rarely have nightmares or symptoms anymore. Actually, writing this blog has been helpful.

I look forward to visiting the new 35W Remembrance Garden. On the first anniversary I attended the Memorial Service and sat next to a survivor. Her car had bounced into the river and she suffered some injuries. She recognized me and we chatted for a while before the service began. Mid-way through the memorial service an eagle began circling the ceremony. I pointed it out to her and the people nearby; soon almost everyone was watching the eagle circle. She whispered to me that as she was dragging herself onto the bridge deck an eagle buzzed a few feet above her head. She said that several eagles immediately started zooming over the area. Her words sent a tingle down my spine. My part-Native American grandfather taught me that eagles sometimes come to help escort a human's soul to the next experience. I began to cry because the eagle overhead held a huge spiritual meaning to me. The service was loud with lots of people so there would be no reason for an eagle to investigate since they don’t really like human activity. The eagle was there for the thirteen souls who moved on and all the souls affected by this disaster.

On eagles wings…
© 2011

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